In the late 90s The Fast Show used to feature a recurrent sketch in which a group of men and one woman would be brainstorming for ideas. The punchline was always the same: the woman would be the one to find the solution but no one would seem to hear it until a man repeated it using slightly different words, having not quite understood it, whereupon he’d be treated like a total genius.
I think things are a bit like that in feminism these days. We have decades of serious scholarship and wonderful ideas but unfortunately most of it has come from not just from women, but from stupid old cis women (a bit like your mum, but more bigoted). That can’t be any good, can it? Best repackage it to make it seem more clever and authoritative. Best say it’s coming from someone with a deeper, more meaningful understanding of sex and gender. Best pretend it’s all new, all the better to continue pissing from a great height onto the very people we claim to be liberating.
This was the feeling I got from reading the latest in a long line of “why it’s The Right Thing to call women cis even if they don’t like it” pieces. In “Don’t like the word ‘cis’? Good” C N Lester (who is not a cis woman) informs us that words, while they may not capture things precisely, are, like, really important tools! Wow! Who’d have thought it? Not stupid TERFs, that’s for sure (since it’s not as though they’ve ever said words matter in the context of describing oppression, is it?). No, these are all new ideas. If they sound like something that useless, bigoted feminists have been saying for the past thirty years, that’s pure coincidence.
While acknowledging that trans and cis are blunt tools, Lester argues that “to use the words ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ in public and political contexts is not to create that system – nor, hopefully, to sustain it – but to know the enemy and to fight it”. This is of course a bit like saying that to talk about female oppression in the context of female bodies is not to create the sex class system – nor, hopefully, to sustain it – but to know the enemy and to fight it. It’s a bit like saying that, except it isn’t, because Lester’s example is obviously dead clever and nuanced whereas the second is the kind of thing that would get you called a vile essentialist bigot. To describe is not to prescribe, unless you’re putting forward a theory of patriarchy, in which case STOP PRESCRIBING. Why should this be the case? My guess is that there’s this group of people – no idea how to identify them – whose narratives are seen as more suspect than everyone else’s. I can’t say any more than that or else you’d suspect me of being one of them.
Lester goes on to explain how the concept of “cis privilege” is necessary in order to describe trans people’s experiences of oppression:
Transphobia is real – a daily occurrence for so many trans people. And we need a word to describe the fact that transphobia is not a natural and logical extension of that transness – something terrible, but the kind of thing that happens to minority groups. Bigotry is not natural or excusable. That term, ‘cis privilege’, which so many people seem to take umbrage at – it’s no more than an admission of transphobia, but turned around so as to highlight the injustice of its existence.
Is it just me, or does this all seem strangely familiar? It’s as though I’ve read it before but in a completely different context – an evil TERFy context, to be precise. Amazing how one only needs to tweak a few words and the same concepts shift from being inclusive and insightful to suddenly being VILE HATE SPEECH:
Male and female socialisation is real – enforced membership of the subordinate sex class is a daily reality for all females. And we need a word to describe the fact that female subjugation is not a natural and logical extension of femaleness – something terrible, but the kind of thing that happens to inferior human beings. Bigotry is not natural or excusable. That term, ‘male privilege’, which so many people seem to take umbrage at – it’s no more than an admission of female oppression, but turned around so as to highlight the injustice of its existence.
Strange, isn’t it? When you make that comparison it’s almost as though ordering females to own up to their cis privilege all the fucking time is equivalent to telling trans women to talk about their male privilege at every available juncture. And neither of those things strikes me as particularly appropriate. But if, as Lester argues, there is a time and place to discuss cis privilege, even if one is female, then there’s a time and place to talk about male privilege, even if one is a woman. Or should all that be dismissed as TERF talk? If so, why?
A factor of female oppression is to be viewed as unworthy of having a story of one’s own. You are a vessel for others; your words do not count. This is one of the things that can make it hard to articulate what females – and only females – experience (by which I do not mean some imaginary shared female experience, but any sort of experience at all; we are mirrors and mirrors are not meant to talk back). Much of what gets described as bigotry – setting one’s own boundaries, asking for one’s own words – could more accurately be described as “not being female enough”. We should be yielding, accommodating, compliant. We are stymied by the very gender stereotypes we set out to challenge. A narrative that centres us is impermissible; it can only ever be retold in other words, shifting the focus away from us and our unstable core.
No wonder some seek to approach the discussion from a different angle and then believe their own words are fresh and new. But the truth is they’re not. It’s just Fast Show-style sexism that makes it seem that way. Patriarchy is as strong as ever and the appropriation of feminist ideas, with neither acknowledgement nor equality of application, does little to challenge it.